I debated on whether to post on this topic or not. I try to be a gentleman, so I don’t want to be too rough on those I criticize. Let me start out by saying that those I criticize have honorable intentions. They want to make investing simple for investors. Noble and laudable; the trouble comes when one over-simplifies, and errors get introduced as a result.

I am both a quantitative and a qualitative analyst, which makes me a little unusual. It also means that I am not as good as the best qualitative or quantitative analysts. To be the best, it takes dedication that would squeeze out spending too much time on the other skill. I have always tried to stay balanced, which helps me as a businessman, actuary and investor. Good problem solving requires looking at a problem from many angles, and then choosing the right analogy/tool to do the job.

One of my readers, Steve Milos, forwarded to me a piece from Merrill Lynch’s life insurance analyst suggesting that Price-to-Book — Return on Equity [PB-ROE] analyses were simply low P/E investing in disguise. I tossed back a comment “The Merrill analyst doesn’t understand what he is talking about. PB-ROE analyses are richer than low PE, though in a few environments, like the present, they are similar.”, prompting Steve to say, “LOL, I love that – now tell me what you really think!”

I decided to let the matter drop until Zach Maxfield, one of the analysts from Bankstocks.com, posted a laudatory article on Ed Spehar’s piece. I didn’t learn what I am about to write in a day, so let me take you on a journey explaining how I came to learn that PB-ROE analyses are valuable.

Back in 1982, I was a graduate teaching assistant at UC-Davis. The professor that I worked for used regression analysis in financial analysis to try to separate out effects that might be more complex than current modeling would admit. I did not get a chance to use the idea though, until 1992, when I began value investing, after my Mom gave me a copy of Ben Graham’s “The Intelligent Investor.” As I began investing, I noted that some stocks seemed better valued using book, others by earnings, and some by other metrics. Initially I began doing rule-of-thumb tradeoffs like Price to (book plus 5 times earnings). Eventually I wondered whether I had the right tradeoff or not, and how I might work in other metrics like dividends, sales, cash from operations [CFO], and free cash flow [FCF].

I’m not sure when it hit me, but I decided to run a regression of price versus earnings, book, sales, FCF, and CFO. Reasoning that sectors have different economic models, I did separate runs by sector. Truly, I should have done it by industry, or subindustry, as I do it today, but my initial attempts still found promising inexpensive stocks.

It was not until 1998 that I ran into PB-ROE analysis for the first time. Morgan Stanley was marketing a derivative instrument that would reduce book, turn it into earnings, and reduce taxes at the same time. I became the external expert on that derivative instrument, while hating its sliminess. (The whole story is a hoot, but it would take too long, and isn’t relevant here. Suffice it to say that the EITF and the IRS killed it six months after the first transaction got done.)

For those who believed PB-ROE analysis, the derivative was a godsend — less book, more earnings. With my more general model, I said, “So what, give up book, get “earnings,” which come back to book value anyway. These are just accounting shenanigans.” I didn’t see the value of PB-ROE then.

By 2001, I was a corporate bond manager. The Society of Actuaries Investment Section recommended the book, “Investing by the Numbers” by Jarrod Wilcox. An excellent book, I learned a lot from it, and he explained the PB-ROE model to me for the first time. To the best of my knowledge, it is the only place where I have seen it explained.

Where does the PB-ROE model come from? It is a simplification of the dividend discount model. In 2004, I gave a talk to the Southeastern Actuaries Conference. The relevant pages are 5-11, where I go through an example of a PB-ROE analysis, and give the limitations of the analysis. There are several limitations, here they are:

 

  1. Encourages maximization of ROE in the short run, rather than the long run
  2. Revenue growth is often equated with earnings growth in practice
  3. “Run rate earnings” is adjusted (operating) GAAP earnings, versus distributable earnings (free cash flow)
  4. Implicit assumption of constant earnings growth, required return, and dividend policy in the Price to Book versus ROE metric
  5. The model assumes that capital is the scarce resource needed to produce more earnings.
  6. ROA is more critical than ROE; it’s harder to achieve. In bull markets, anyone can add leverage.

 

Items 4 & 5 are the only problems intrinsic to the PB-ROE model; the rest are problems with how the model gets abused by practitioners. I don’t think that any industry fits those conditions perfectly, but I usually think that the are good enough for a first pass, and after that I make adjustments for different expected growth rates, excess capital, earnings quality and more.

 

PB-ROE is equivalent to low P/E investing when the regression line comes close to going through the origin (0,0). From my experience, that rarely happens. For my nine insurance subgroups (bigger than Mr. Spehar’s analysis — I cover them all), almost all of the intercept terms are different than zero with statistical significance. Or, as a colleague of mine said to me recently, “Thanks for teaching me how to do PB-ROE analysis,it really helped with my analyses on Japanese banks and US investment banks.”

 

Now, there is a seventh problem with PB-ROE, but it is more complex. So you run he regression and get the tradeoff of P/B versus ROE that the market is currently pricing. Is that the right tradeoff in the intermediate term, or are investors overvaluing or undervaluing ROE? Hard to tell, but when the regression line is flat or downward sloping (it happens every now and then), one has to question whether the market’s judgment is right or not.

 

In some environments, PB-ROE and low P/E investing will be similar, but that will not always be true. Do not accept a false simplification, even though it may be true at present. The PB-ROE model is richer, and works in more environments, after adjusting for the limitations listed above. PB-ROE is a very useful tool, and not “gobbledygook.”

Time for my most recent portfolio changes. The reshaping is complete, here is the data file and here are the qualitative details:

 

Buys

 

  1. Arkansas Best [ABFS] — Inexpensive, and trucking is out of favor. Trucking should pick up with the economy in the second half of 2007, and as the dollar cheapens, trucking is needed to get the exports to the ports.
  2. Deutsche Bank [DB] — Cheap major European bank. I’m light on financials (though if I lost my restrictions you would see a lot of insurance in my portfolio). 9-10x earnings for the next two years seems too cheap for me. Can they have that much exposure to the same problems faced by Bear Stearns? Maybe, but the valuation compensates for that.
  3. Gruma SA [GMK] — Inexpensive, and a play on the growing middle class in Mexico. Also a play on the growing popularity of Mexican food in the world. I don’t have a lot in consumer staples, so this helps.
  4. Mylan Labs [MYL] — returning to a name I last owned in 1988. Inexpensive generic drugmaker. I have nothing in healthcare, so this diversifies me a little. Generics are unlikely to fare badly as the branded pharmaceuticals should the Democrats win in 2008.

 

Sales

 

  1. Sold Komag [KOMG] because of the merger, and the arb premium (amount of incremental gains from holding on until deal consummation) was less than what I could earn in cash.
  2. Sold St. Joe [JOE], and I wish I had sold when one of my colleagues explained their likely troubles to me one month ago. St. Joe is going to have it tough for a while because they don’t have a lot of ways to generate cash, without selling property, and the land market is not as good as it was two years ago.
  3. Sold Sappi [SPP]. The glossy paper market, like other fiber markets faces their share of challenges. Demand is sluggish, and likely to stay that way for a while.
  4. Sold a little of Lafarge [LR]. Still have a position there. It’s had a nice run, so I rebalanced down to my normal target weight.

 

With these moves, I am back to 35 positions, up from 34. I am running with 16% cash, which is high for me. At the beginning of the year, I reinvested and brought cash down to 5% of the portfolio, but good investment results, combined with rebalancing has brought the cash back, and then some. If the cash hits 20%, I will raise my normal portfolio position size, and move cash to 10% or so. Maybe we get a pullback?

 

What I did not sell

 

  1. SPX Corp — the turnaround continues. For now, honor the momentum.
  2. Noble Corp — Hey, I just bought this last during the reshaping; I am not kicking it out so soon, no matter how well it has done.
  3. Sara Lee — the turnaround continues. No momentum here; maybe management will succeed. A few of their ideas seem to be on target.

 

What I did not buy

 

Many more entries here. As I worked down my list, I kept saying, “Cheap for a reason… cheap for a reason…”

 

  1. Too small: Charles and Colvard, PAM Transportation
  2. Don’t care for the industry: Chipmos Technologies, Finish Line, Foot Locker, Encore Wire, First Consulting, Freightcar America, Korea Electric, and Metrogas
  3. Already own something that I like better in its industry, and don’t want to increase exposure: Crystal River and MVC Capital (both interesting, though I like Deerfield better)
  4. Irregular operating history: Optimal Group and Northgate Minerals
  5. Tyco International is not as cheap as the data would indicate because of the recent spinoffs.

 

After I finish this, I will adjust the portfolio over at Stockpickr.com.
Full Disclosure: Long SPW NE SLE LR GMK DB ABFS MYL

Bond investors and value investors tend to be cautious in investing. It is possible to be too cautious, though, and so sometimes it pays to lay out the bull case. Indirectly, I learned this after several years of sitting next to the high yield manager at Dwight Asset Management (a very good firm that few know about). He wasn’t unconcerned about negative developments, but knew that fewer bad things happen than get talked about, and that they tend to take longer to happen than most imagine. He knew that he had to take some risks, because if you wait for the market to correct before you enter, you will miss profits while waiting, and the correction could be a long time in coming.

Also, I fondly remember our weekly economic conference calls in 2002, where the high yield manager and I would take the bull side in the discussions. For me it was fun, because it was so unlike me (I tend to be a bear), and it helped me to learn to balance the risks, and not be a perma-bull or a perma-bear.

So with that, here’s my quick list on what is going right in this environment:

  1. Earnings yields are higher than bond yields, particularly among many investment grade companies, fostering buybacks and occasional LBOs. Profit margins may mean-revert eventually, but it might be a while for that to happen, given the global pressures that are keeping wage rates low.
  2. The financing of the US current account deficit is still primarily being done through the purchase of US dollar denominated debt securities, keeping interest rates low in the US. This may shift if enough countries experience inflation from the buildup of US dollar reserves that they do not need, and allow their currencies to appreciate versus the US dollar. That hasn’t happened in size yet.
  3. ECRI’s weekly leading index continues to make new highs.
  4. Money supplies are growing rapidly around the world. Most of the paper is creating asset inflation, rather than goods inflation so far.
  5. Bond yields have moderated since the yield peak in mid-June. Spreads on corporate investment grade debt have not widened much. Financing is cheap for the creditworthy.
  6. Short sales are at a record at the NYSE. Part of that is just the influence of hedge funds.
  7. Vulture investors have a lot of capital to deploy. Marginal assets are finding homes at prices that don’t involve too much of a haircut. (I’m not talking about subprime here.)
  8. On a P/E basis, stocks are 45% cheaper than when the market peaked in March 2000.
  9. Sell-side analysts are more bearish than they ever have been.
  10. Investment grade companies still have a lot of cash sitting around. The washout from 2000-2002 made a lot of companies skittish, and led them to hold extra cash. Much of the cash has been deployed, but there is still more to go.
  11. The FOMC is unlikely to tighten before it loosens.
  12. Yield-seeking on the part of older investors is helping to keep interest rates low, and the prices of yield-sensitive stocks high.
  13. DB Pension plans and endowments are still willing to make allocations to private equity.
  14. The emerging markets countries are in aggregate in better fiscal shape than they ever have been.
  15. Trade is now a global phenomenon, and not simply US/Europe/Japan-centric.
  16. The current difficulties in subprime are likely to be localized in their effects, and a variety of hedge funds and fund-of-funds should get hit, but not do major damage to the financial system.

Now, behind each of these positives is a negative. (Every silver cloud has a dark lining?) What happens when these conditions shift? Profit margins fall, interest rates rise, inflation roars, risk appetites decrease, etc?

These are real risks, and I do not mean to minimize them. There are more risks as well that I haven’t mentioned. I continue to act as a nervous bull in this environment, making money where I can, and realizing that over a full cycle, my risk control disciplines will protect me in relative, but not absolute terms. So I play on, not knowing when a real disaster will strike.

Editing note — my apologies.  The second paragraph omitted the word “not” in the original publication.  What a word to omit, not.   

I have updated my insurance longs over at Stockpickr.com. (At present, I have no shorts, but if I did, I would not reveal them. Check my disclosure policy for details.) Here are the major changes:

I have sold Reinsurance Group of America, Allstate, Scottish Re (there was only a stub left), Endurance, Allied World, and Employers Holdings. I have bought Safety, Aspen, Argonaut, and PXRE. These changes have take place over the past few months. I have not mentioned them until now, because my employer was still building positions in the names; we are done now.
Why the changes? Here goes: with the exception of Scottish Re, I still like all of the companies and their management teams. By name:

  • Allied World and Endurance — nice runs. Not sure I want to hold them through storm season.
  • Aspen is a cheap substitute for AWH and ENH, maintaining some of my property exposure cheaper.
  • Argonaut and PXRE — merging. Argonaut got PXRE cheaply, and the deal makes good long term sense. Argonaut re-domiciles in Bermuda, and slow lowers its tax rate. It also further diversifies by writing property reinsurance, but not too much.
  • Allstate — I still own this in the broad market portfolio, but that has different objectives than the hedge fund that I work for. It has a longer time horizon. In the short run, Allstate will be pressured by increasing competition in the personal lines space. On the other hand, what a cheap valuation. I like it!
  • Scottish Re — can’t write new business. Very opaque earnings model. It is a pig in a poke, and I don’t think one can trust the book value.
  • Employers Holdings — I have to beg a mea culpa here, and say that my initial article on RealMoney was wrong. My goof? The prospectus was complex, badly worded, and I mis-estimated the true share count. After figuring out the true share count, I realized that the stock was fairly valued, not cheap. Apologies to all who went in with me on this; at least if I have to make an error, better to make it when no big losses are made.
  • Reinsurance Group of America — a real class act, but past my valuation parameters for now.
  • Safety Insurance — Very well run pure play personal lines insurer in Massachusetts, and cheap! Insulated from the general competition in personal lines in the USA.

Anyway, that’s what I am up to in insurance now, and how my portfolio differs from where I was in the first quarter.

Full disclosure: long AHL, AGII, ALL, PXT, and SAFT

The Efficient Markets Hypothesis in its semi-strong form says that the current market price of an asset incorporates all available information about the security in question. Coming from a family where my Mom was a successful investor, I had an impossible time swallowing the EMH, except perhaps as a limiting concept — i.e., the markets tend to be that way, but never get there fully.

I’m a value investor, and generally, over the past fourteen years, my value investing has enabled me to earn superior returns than the indexes. A large part of that is being willing to run a portfolio that differs significantly from the indexes. Now, not everyone can do that; in aggregate, we all earn the market return, less fees. The market is definitely efficient for all of us as a group. But how can you explain persistently clever subgroups?

Behavioral finance has been the leading challenger to the efficient markets hypothesis, but the academics reply that behavioral anomalies are not an integrated theory that can explain everything, like the EMH, and its offspring like mean variance analysis, the capital asset pricing model, and their cousins.

Though it is kind of a hodgepodge, the adaptive markets hypothesis offers an opportunity for behavioral finance to become an integrated theory. First, behavioral finance is a series of observations about how most investors systemically misinterpret investment data, allowing for value investors and momentum investors to make money, among others. The adaptive markets hypothesis says that all of the market inefficiencies exist in a tension with the efficient markets, and that market players make the market more efficient by looking for the inefficiencies, and profiting from them until they disappear, or atleast, until they get so small that it’s not worth the search costs any more.

Consider risk arbitrage strategies for a moment. Arbitrage strategies earned superior returns through 2001 or so, until a combination of deals falling through, and too much money chasing the space (powered by hedge fund of funds wanting smooth returns) made it less worthwhile to be a risk arb. It is like there were too many fishermen in that part of the investment ocean, and the fish were depleted. After years of poor returns money exited the space. Today with more deals to go around, and fewer players, risk arbitrage is attractive again. No good strategy is ever permanently out of favor; after a strategy is overplayed to where the prospects of the assets are overdiscounted, a period of underperformance ensues, and it gets exacerbated by money leaving the strategy. Eventually, enough money leaves the the strategy is attractive again, but market players are slow to react to that, becaue they have been burned recently.

Strategies go in and out of favor, competing for scarce above-market returns in much the same way that ordinary businesses try to achieve above market ROEs. Nothing works permanently in the short run, though as a friend of mine is prone to say, “There’s always a bull market somewhere.” Trouble is, it is often hard to find, so I stick with the one anomaly that usually works, the value anomaly, and augment it with sector rotation and the remainder of my eight rules.

Now, I’m not a funny guy, so my kids tell me, but I’ll try to end this piece with an illustration. Here goes:

Scene One — Efficient Markets Hypothesis

An economics professor and a grad student are walking along the sidewalk, and the grad student spots a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. He says, “Hey professor, look, a twenty dollar bill.” The professor says, “Nonsense. If there were a twenty dollar bill on the street, someone would have picked it up already.” They walk past, and a little kid walking behind them pockets the bill.
Scene Two — Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, Part 1
An economics professor and a grad student are walking along the sidewalk, and the grad student spots a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. He says, “Hey professor, look, a twenty dollar bill.” The professor says, “Really?” and stoops to look. A little kid walking behind them runs in front of them, grabs the bill and pockets it.

Scene Three — Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, Part 2
An economics professor and a grad student are walking along the sidewalk, and the grad student spots a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. He says quietly, “Tsst. Hey professor, look, a twenty dollar bill.” The professor says, “Really?” and stoops to look. He grabs the bill and pockets it. The little kid doesn’t notice.
Scene Four — Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, Part 3
An economics professor and a grad student are walking along the sidewalk, and the grad student spots a twenty dollar bill on the sidewalk. He grabs the bill and pockets it. No one is the wiser.
Scene Five — Adaptive Markets Hypothesis, Part 4
An economics professor and a grad student are walking along the sidewalk, and the grad student is looking for a twenty dollar bill lying around. There aren’t any, but in the process of looking, he misses the point that the professor was trying to teach him. The professor makes a mental note to not take him on as a TA for the next semester. The little kid looks for the twenty dollar bill as well, but as he listens to the professor drone on decides not to take economics when he gets older.